They’re almost always notoriously bad, movie prequels in comicbook form.
They often only barely exploit the comics medium. The comics themselves are often dry and sometimes painfully unreadable. The story is frequently stilted, plodding, relying too much on either prose or image-sequencing. What’s worse, they never reveal anything meaningful or central or enduring to the movie itself. Very often what once seemed a stroke of genius, blending together the fanbase of two media, comics and film, ostensibly crumbles to dust in the hand. They’re not real comics after all. Just another way to callously announce a project.
The four Red prequel books (one for each character, Joe, Frank, Marvin and Victoria), gratefully seem to buck that trend. It’s hard to put your finger on it at first. What exactly is it that elevates the four Reds above the rank and file of comicbook prequels and on par with IDW’s A-Team: War Stories published earlier this year? Is it the presence of the directorial team of the brothers Hoeber? Does their hand on the comics project ensure a kind of cross-media buy-in that serves as a kind of cultural authenticity for the project? Is it the fact that the movie itself is based on the comics project authored by the estimable Warren Ellis, responsible for such impactful works as Transmetropolitan, Planetary and redefining Marvel’s Thunderbolts? Or is it simply the fact that comicbook prequels means a return to the original medium of Red?
Whatever it is, it works.
Frank shines through because he is the Bruce Willis we want to remember. The Bruce Willis who first appeared to take down terrorists in Nakatomi Plaza. And not the softer, more demure, more meditative Bruce of such movies as 16 Blocks or Twelve Monkeys or Sixth Sense. Even Joe is far shrewder, far more canny, far wilier than the Morgan Freeman we seem to recall from movies.
Something more is at play here, in these books. Something that goes beyond simply marketing the movie to a comicbook audience. There is a kind of reframing at work here, it re-renders the actors we are already familiar with, and thrusts them into roles demanded by the story.
The four Red prequel books, aren’t simply an afterthought.
With this in mind, Victoria and Marvin become exceedingly interesting.
Thrown back in time 30 years, Victoria actually reads like an origin story. Her skirmish with the through-narrative villain for the four books (a now-retired KGB mastermind known as Ivan), is genuinely definitive of her character. And visually, her younger self looks nothing like the character played by Helen Mirren in the upcoming movie. The kind of re-rendering that the Hoebers offer here, takes on a very material sense. Marvin on the other hand, offers an almost surreal visualization of a mental breakdown. Sure enough Marvin has been fed an experimental drug, but his paranoia, the fact of his living at the dark edge of society with almost no human contact save his Company handler, makes the effects of this drug a visual treat.
What works for the four Reds is what always worked. A good, solid story, sound character development and the rise of the unexpected that all coordinate to exploit the comics medium itself. How interesting would the 2005 OGN, Hellblazer: All His Engines have been as a Constantine prequel that relocates Constantine himself to LA? Written at the height of Mike Carey’s run on the landmark Vertigo title, All His Engines could have been the one prequel that worked. Instead, the book itself was disassociated from the movie.
While the Red prequels cannot lay claim to the same longstanding tradition, they do stand out as a worthy venture, rather than a marketing ploy.